‘We owe it to those we serve to right the ship and do even greater things in the five decades to come…’
(Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times) The president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Richard Cohen, announced his resignation Friday, the latest in a series of high-profile departures.
It follows only a week after the departure of co-founder, figurehead and major fundraiser Morris Dees was fired amid allegations of misconduct and workplace discrimination.
The pioneering Alabama-based civil-rights organization recently came under fire on several fronts. Internally, minorities within the group criticized the dominance of its white leadership, including several leaders who were Jewish at a time when the far-Left seems to be moving toward an open embrace of anti-Semitism.
The group also had been excoriated by conservative critics over its defamatory “hate list” that falsely labeled many mainstream nonprofits and organizations simply for disagreeing with its politics. A high-profile court loss last year humiliated the SPLC after it labeled a Muslim critic of Islamic extremism as an anti-Islamic extremist.
Following Dees’ ouster, more scrutiny also has been placed on the so-called nonprofit’s finances, where only a small amount of money from its estimated half a billion in assets—some held out of auditors’ reach in offshore accounts—actually goes to legal advocacy, with much of it going to its leaders’ salaries. Some critics have now called for the removal of its nonprofit designation.
Of the many criticisms it faced, however, the biggest factor the group’s undoing was the hushed internal scandal that raised questions about whether the organization’s long-standing mission of justice and anti-discrimination had matched its internal treatment of some black and female employees.
“Whatever problems exist at the SPLC happened on my watch, so I take responsibility for them,” Cohen wrote in an email obtained by the Los Angeles Times, while asking the staff to avoid jumping to conclusions before the board completes an internal review of the organization’s work culture.
Cohen’s resignation also came the same day as a resignation by the organization’s legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, who did not give a reason for her departure in a brief email to her colleagues. Brownstein did not respond to requests for comment.
At 5:03 p.m. Central time Friday, Cohen sent a message to staff, with the subject line “Stepping Down,” announcing that he, too, would be leaving the organization that he and Dees had turned into a research and fundraising juggernaut.
Cohen, who joined the organization in 1986, about 15 years after its founding, told staff that he had asked the center’s board of directors in October to start searching for a new president.
But in light of recent events, he cited a more immediate need for a transition to a new generation of leadership “in order to give the organization the best chance to heal,” Cohen wrote.
Earlier this week, the board of directors announced that it had appointed Tina Tchen, the former chief of staff for former first lady Michelle Obama, to lead the inquiry into its workplace conditions.
“We’re going through a difficult period right now, and I know that we’ll emerge stronger at the end of the process that we’ve launched with Tina Tchen,” Cohen wrote. “Given my long tenure as the SPLC president, however, I do not think I should be involved in that process beyond cooperating with Tina, her team, and the board in any way that may be helpful.”
Cohen said it was an “incredible honor” to have served as the organization’s leader, adding: “Right now, we’re at a critical point in our country’s history. We owe it to those we serve to right the ship and do even greater things in the five decades to come.”
A spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center declined to comment.
The recent resignations came amid staff concerns by staff over the recent resignation of one of the organization’s top black attorneys, Meredith Horton, who wrote in a farewell email that “there is more work to do in the legal department and across the organization to ensure that SPLC is a place where everyone is heard and respected and where the values we are committed to pursuing externally are also being practiced internally.”
Following Horton’s announcement, a group of about two dozen employees signed a letter to management and to the board saying they were concerned that internal “allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.”
In response, the organization’s leaders announced that corrective action would be taken.
Liberty Headlines’ Ben Sellers contributed to this report.
(c)2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.